Texts: 1 Kings 3:5-12 (King Solomon asks for wisdom); Matthew 13:31-52 (parables of the kingdom)
World War One changed everything. 100 years ago tomorrow, on July 28, 1914, Austro-Hungary declared war on Serbia. This was followed by the outbreak of war between Germany and Russia 100 years ago this Friday, and between Britain and Germany on August 4. The Great War led to the deaths of 10 million soldiers and seven million civilians. It revolutionized technology and rewrote the maps of Europe and the Middle East. And it ended with the destruction of four monarchies – the Russian Empire in 1917 and the Ottoman, Austro-Hungarian, and German empires in 1918.
Given the tight bond that has always existed between religion and monarchy, the Great War also transformed the church. It marked the end of Christendom, that long era when the church had been the official religion of the Roman Empire and its successor states in Europe.
Christendom had been under threat before World War I. In 1649, radical Protestants in England had executed King Charles I and created a short-lived republic. Other Protestants like the Mennonites were struggling during this period to carve out a space for worship free of the state in Europe. Then the movement away from monarchy and state religion moved into high gear with the U.S. Revolution of 1776, which created the first secular republic of the modern era.
Today, some vestiges of Christendom remain. In the United Kingdom, the Church of England is still the official church. But it and the other surviving Christian monarchies have little power compared to those that existed before World War One.
In 1914, almost all Christians worshipped in the official church of an imperial monarch, and a key mission of church was to support its empire in war. During the Great War, the churches fulfilled this imperialist mission with gusto.
I have just read a new book by Philip Jenkins, “The Great and Holy War: How World War One Became a Religious Crusade,” and its description of the racist and bloodthirsty rhetoric used by churches on all sides of the conflict struck me. The Orthodox Church of the Czar’s Russia said that Roman Catholic Austro-Hungary was the Anti-Christ. The Lutheran churches of the Kaiser’s Germany said the British Empire was the Anti-Christ. The Protestant churches of King George’s British Empire, including those that became the United Church of Canada, said Germany was the Anti-Christ.
Some ministers soft-pedalled this rhetoric while others went so far as to call for genocide. But regardless of intensity, there was little acknowledgement that soldiers on all sides were told by their churches that they were killing in the service of God. There was little acknowledgement that King George, Kaiser Wilhelm, and Czar Nicholas were all cousins. There was no awareness that all of the European empires were equally stained by the blood of their colonial subjects and that the real purpose of the war was to fight for the spoils of colonies in Africa and Asia.
Today, we denounce the violent policies of our forefathers during the Crusades of 1,000 years ago or during the wars between Protestant and Catholic princes in Europe 400 years ago. But the fact that the same thing can be said of our church 100 years ago – just five generations removed from us – gives me pause.
Still, do we at Mill Woods United need to discuss The Great War? Perhaps not. But I pay attention because of possible connections between the end of Christendom and the decline of our churches today.
Last week, I attended a conference here in Edmonton that was hosted by the Lutheran and Anglican churches. While the idea of the end of Christendom was mentioned, there seemed to be no awareness that Christendom was about supporting imperialist war; that it wasn’t just a happier time when sanctuaries were full.
The Conference discussed plans to celebrate the 500th anniversary of the date in 1517 when Martin Luther posted his 95 Theses against the Pope to a cathedral door in Germany and began the Reformation. But there was no mention that the 400th celebration of this event in Germany in 1917 was a festival of militarism, nationalism and anti-Semitism, as detailed in Jenkins’ book.
Nor was there was an acknowledgement that the Lutherans of Germany and the Anglicans of Britain had denounced each other as the Anti-Christ just 100 years ago.
Today, political power relies on forces such as nationalism, consumerism, and the mass media more than on church. But I am not sure that our churches have noticed. During the weeks I was away from Mill Woods, I worshipped at three United and two Anglican churches, and the Union Jack of the British Empire held pride of place in four of them. It take this as a small sign that we haven’t yet cut our roots with empire even though empire has abandoned us.
The end of Christendom is something to cheer. For one, it has removed our obligation to support war and colonialism. But it has also removed a key reason for the existence of Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant churches.
It is different in the United States. With the victory of the revolution in 1783, American churches were the first ones forced to figure out how to exist without official state support, which they did. Pentecostalism, born in Los Angeles in 1906, is now bigger than Protestantism and is the fastest growing denomination in the world. Other American denominations like the Mormons and the Seventh Day Adventists are also growing. These are churches with no historic tie to monarchy, and they are now eclipsing churches like ours with roots in the Roman Empire.
Unfortunately, it is hard for Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant churches to come to grips with the end of Christendom despite the fact that the good news of Jesus Christ gives us all we need to build communities of faith that are anti-imperialist and post-monarchical.
Monarchy is everywhere in the Bible, as in today’s readings. The first is about a dream of King Solomon who ruled Israel about 3,000 years ago. Today when I hear of Solomon’s quest for the wisdom with which to govern Israel, I also hear the cries of the dying and the wounded in Gaza, and I weep.
Today we also heard a reading in which Jesus describes what the kingdom of God is like with parables about seeds, yeast, pearls and fishing nets.
But just as I am not going to talk about the horrors of the war between Israel and Palestine today, nor am I going to puzzle over what the parables might mean other than to say that they show the kingdom of God is nothing like the Russia of the czars, the Germany of the kaisers, or the Britain of its kings 100 years ago.
We hail Jesus as Christ or king. But Jesus does not rule on a distant throne in Jerusalem, Berlin, or London. The throne of Jesus is the heart of every pilgrim. For Christians, sovereignty does not rest with an oppressive emperor. It exists as a divine spark within us – the inner Christ proclaimed by Paul. This truth directs us to a mission that is anti-imperialist, democratic, and egalitarian.
The capture of Christianity by the Roman Empire 1600 years ago created a church that distorted the message of Jesus. But the success of churches like the Pentecostals show that the end of Christendom does not have to mean the end of church.
I am not suggesting that we become Pentecostal — there is much about their theology and mission with which I disagree. Nevertheless, their success shows that when churches abandon imperial symbols like the Union Jack, they can still flourish.
The story of the ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus contains all we need to rise to new life beyond empire. As United, Lutheran, Anglican and similar churches continue to decline, our future might be non-denominational. But whatever church may look in 10, 25, or 100 years, it will continue to involve worship and mission within the eternal heart of God.
Empire has abandoned the Christian Church as its key ideological prop, but empire has hardly disappeared from the earth.
As I wrote in the “What the Buzz” email sent on Thursday, today I mark not only the centennial of the beginning of the Great War, but also the 10th anniversary of the first time I preached a sermon. This was on July 18, 2004 at the church which sponsored me for ministry, Kingston Road United Church in east Toronto.
That sermon, which I posted earlier this week on my blog, was also a commemoration of an historic event, the 25th anniversary of the revolution in Nicaragua in 1979, which overthrew a brutal dictator who had been installed and supported by the secular empire of the United States.
In today’s reflection, I have decided not to say anything about what is now the 35th anniversary of that revolution other than this: there is an obvious similarity between that first sermon and today’s in its focus on war and revolution. If you are curious about what I wrote 10 years ago, you can read it online.
Many ministers try to avoid political subjects like war and revolution. But since religion has always been intertwined with state power, and since the future of religion will be found in opposition to empire, I am drawn to write reflections like this one, as I was to that first one 10 years ago.
In writing such sermons, I try to gain insight into the challenges and opportunities facing us in a rapidly changing world. And I hope that you appreciate some of my thoughts on these matters.
Jesus shows us how to move beyond imperialism. As always, we are called to die to an old way of life — in this case the marriage of empire and church — and rise to new life in which Christ is enthroned in our hearts. This process can be painful, as the struggles of our churches since World War One shows. But it is also a process filled with grace, hope and love.
I pray that as the world marks the many disasters of World War One over the next four years, our churches will reflect on the sins of our imperialist past. May this help us chart a future beyond empire that is faithful to the God who is Love as revealed to us by the Prince of Peace and the King of Heaven.
World War One changed everything, except perhaps for this: Jesus is King, and all the caesars, kaisers and czars of this world are of no importance next to the Christ who reigns in each of our hearts.
Thanks be to God.